“Intimate portrait” might be an overused phrase that garnishes film festival program notes, but there’s truly no better way to describe the films that St. Kilda-based Ghost Pictures tend to make. With the likes of Autoluminescent and In Bob We Trust having sealed their reputation for charting the lives and legacies of Australian iconoclasts, directors Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn have moved on to figure as pivotal in their creative journeys as Michael Hutchence or Rowland S. Howard.1 Peter Vanessa “Troy” Davies, as his most encompassing name goes, was an inimitable force unto himself, a fact documented by his close friends in Ecco Homo with the signature dreamy aesthetic and narrative precision that make the directorial duo such forces to be reckoned with in the realm of contemporary Australian cinema.
As with their previous films, Lowenstein and Milburn start with bold first impressions and work backwards from there. Troy appears on the scene in the late ’70s as Vanessa, a captivating young woman with looks to rival classic Hollywood starlets, undeniably invoked through a photobooth reel. Their Pan-like penchant for tricks and guises is hinted as they change into Troy – after reneging on gender reassignment surgery – and later decisively declared in a montage of their most creative fertile period, with work across film-making, music, theatre and visual art. Ecco Homo‘s score – the combined efforts of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Nils Frahm – soars when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the Troy that the most people would come to know; the man gallivanting around with U2, twitching in the Lowenstein-directed Hunters and Collectors music video for “Talkin’ to a Stranger”, screaming out the opening line in Dogs in Space (“Hey, dogface! Show us ya snatch!”) and launching the short-lived solo project that the film is named after. “Short-lived” becomes an operative word to describe Troy’s output, since his uncanny ability to probe and poke through fluid identities springs from the same impulses that lead him to torch whatever boons he gains from them. A lot of his creative partners, including director Kriv Stenders and various other members of the local music and film industries, speak to this maddening destructive cycle; Troy himself says as much, cut into the film through a Super 8-committed diatribe where he paces a room in suspenders, and in a sit-down interview committed to tape many years later, before his death in 2007.
Bounding the scope of Davies’ life alone would be commendable but Lowenstein and Milburn reach for the exceptional, hitting it confidently in the film’s second act. Troy mentions how warm his father became when he arrived as Vanessa, and others recall stories of his fractured childhood that seemed to fold in with all the other fabrications he spun, but interviews with both of his older brothers reveal what frightening and contradictory perspectives existed in his family. Bereft of supportive parents, the children lacked the ability to confront their sexual abuse by conventional means. Adam is quick to provide drippingly sarcastic gallows humour over the violating he and Troy copped, the deceased Andrew scoffs with disturbing passivity at the allegations that he committed any of it, and Troy regards all of these events, including his awakening with a next-door neighbour at age 11, in totally matter-of-fact terms (a five-second zoom on his eleven year-old self after he describes this is one of the most stomach-churning moments in the film). Their sister is absent for reasons that become painfully clear later. The result of this section is a gripping search for both truth and comfort, and the closest that Ghost Pictures has come to the kind of non-fiction that has made smash hits of Serial or Making a Murderer.2
But then, yet again, the directors refuses to settle for expected forms and dive headfirst into the bittersweet, shifting gears when depicting Troy’s illness in the latter half of the film. The central focus becomes his determination to transcend his vulnerabilities, and get, as he states, “to oblivion, but not to the point of death”; an extended meditation told through the DV haze of the camcorder Lowenstein and Milburn give to him. They largely choose to cut DV footage that Troy shot himself in a bizarrely protracted and piecemeal method, like a Youtube v-log via the static frames of slow cinema (though cut with great judiciousness by Milburn and company). Some will see it as a hindrance, but Ghost Pictures are defined as much by the aesthetic they throw upon real-world stories as the limitations that they thrust upon themselves. When Rowland S. Howard is only able to give a day’s worth of talking head for Autoluminescent, they find one filmed on Super-16 in the ’80s and treat it as though it were him stopping in from the past. And when Ben Peelman, Troy’s lover throughout his illness, is unable to speak on camera, they throw it over to Troy to compose gorgeous two-shots of them both, and edit it with fades and piano melodies into a brief yet symphonic ode to their love. For a moment the unreal supplants the real, an act only filmmakers of this calibre would have the confidence to do.
Just as Troy dictates proceedings like he were leading a dance (to borrow the words of little-known interview guest Bono), the Ghost crew take us on a frenzied movement through the concepts of self he left behind at all of these distinct stages. They are well served by having a subject so comfortable with the camera, with not only the ability to talk in front of it at great length, but also to pick it up and use it to spin his own performative tableaus on a digital canvas. This does not diminish the team’s propensity for sumptuous abstraction, this time they move towards the more mythological in both literal and figurative senses, with Super 8 recreations of Troy’s fraught childhood and ultra slow-mo shots of Pan and deer creatures that represent Troy, or at least how they remember him. The song cues alone are perfectly dispensed to this end: Hunters and Collectors’ “Talkin’ to a Stranger” gets cranked up loud, and I’ll say nothing about the use of the Jimmy Somerville track “Coming” except that it competes with Orlando, its originator, for emotional impact.
In spite of such a relatively short runtime, the whole arc of Troy’s life feels grand and coherent. When we meet Vanessa, we meet someone who has totally rejected the conventional means of coping and embarked on a perpetual shifting-away from others’ purview. The Troy we find in Sydney has done away with this, but still engages with art and self-medication in a bizarre hybrid that does more for his condition than any facile definition of art culture. You can talk for days about what really happened between the two to shape him this way, but the ambiguity by which Ghost construct Troy’s story is an invitation to examine the constructed selves and methods of fulfillment in our own lives, which may not be as captivating as Troy’s but are no less complicated. Ecco Homo is a masterful work that embraces limitations and celebrates the ways they are wrestled with, and in doing so creates an emotional study as overwhelming as its incredible subject.